Kansas City Star Metropolitan Section, Tuesday, 03/01/05

Complaint department ‘a sham,' legislator says

Jackson County chairman asked to resign

by Benita Y. Williams
The Kansas City Star

The chairman of a Jackson County commission that handles citizens' complaints should resign, a county legislator said Monday.

Legislator Robert Stringfield asked that Jim Davis, chairman of the Human Relations and Citizens Complaint Commission, resign as one of the changes Stringfield proposed for the complaint office.

“I want to tell you how I honestly and sincerely feel about an ombudsman office that today isn't worth its weight in salt,” Stringfield said when he introduced the measure.

He described the office as “a sham, a phantom that we pay lip service to.”

Stringfield said the three-person office had a budget of $138,829 in 2003 but handled only 31 formal complaints.

“Four thousand dollars per complaint is an exorbitant and preposterous waste of taxpayer money,” Stringfield said.

He also said few county residents knew that the office, more than 30 years old, existed.

Davis said after the meeting of the Legislature that he had no plans to step down. He said Stringfield's figures were wrong and did not take into account more than 1,500 situations the office processed but that did not evolve into formal complaints.

Officials also said County Executive Katheryn Shields has had trouble finding people to fill three vacancies on the eight-member commission, making it difficult for it to gather a quorum.

“It's a thankless job,” said Legislator Dennis Waits.

Davis acknowledged that the office had not always functioned properly, partly because it was short-staffed.

“My hands have been tied,” he said. “I've only been chairman of this commission since February (2004) and … since becoming chairman my main thrust has been to get a full staff.”

Davis said he recently accomplished that goal by hiring a complaints investigator.

The Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints and its eight-member commission were established by the county's 1973 charter to investigate discrimination, review personnel policies and reconcile problems between citizens and the county.

Its members and chairman are appointed by the county executive, but there is no provision for their removal other than for a lack of meeting attendance.

Stringfield's resolution on Monday was based on the recommendations from lawyer Sidney Willens, the commission's first chairman. Willens volunteered as a consultant for the county following a $16,000 study last year that said the complaint office was understaffed and underfunded and that its commission was too closely tied to the county executive.

Shields defended Davis.

“I think the chairman, Mr. Davis, has worked very hard,” Shields said. “I am not willing to be so ungrateful for a citizen's work as to ask him in kind to resign,” she said.

call (816) 234-4789 or send e-mail to bwilliams@kcstar.com.
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